From the Hill – Fall 2013
Congressional budget gridlock
With the appropriations cycle stalled since July—and with little real hope of a completed appropriations cycle to begin with—Congress has now resumed the political gamesmanship around continuing resolutions and debt ceilings, which is becoming the new normal.
At the end of September, the House passed an initial continuing resolution (CR) that sets FY 2014 spending at FY 2013 levels through December 15 to avoid a shutdown, but it added the poison pill of defunding the Affordable Care Act. In response the Senate passed its own version of a CR that maintains health reform funding and funds government through mid-November, again at FY 2013 levels. The House rejected the Senate bill, and members of Congress devoted themselves to a heated exchange of accusations about who is to blame while waiting for the government to reach the day when it hits the debt ceiling and no longer has access to the funds necessary to pay its bills. By the time this issue is published, Congress is likely to have done something to avoid default.
It’s not clear where this leaves full- year FY 2014 appropriations, which will still have to be negotiated and passed after a CR is adopted. Under the spending caps established by the Budget Control Act, overall discretionary spending is slated to drop by 2% below FY 2013 levels, though the bulk of this reduction would come from the defense spending side. Democrats and some Republicans would still like to see the discretionary spending caps lifted from current levels; many Republicans would also like to see further reductions in nondefense funding and increases in defense funding. But for the moment, negotiations over the fiscal situation have cooled considerably, and any movement on discretionary spending, or R&D in particular, is likely to be limited for now.
Likewise, the current debate leaves the long-term fiscal picture very fuzzy. As the Congressional Budget Office has pointed out recently, even as discretionary spending drops to all-time lows, mandatory spending, especially entitlements, will continue to rise. In the past few years, the bulk of deficit reduction has been achieved through cuts in discretionary spending, including R&D, whereas the main drivers of federal spending in the coming decades have hardly been addressed.
House holds climate hearing
On September 18, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Power Subcommittee held a hearing entitled “The Obama Administration’s Climate Change Policies and Activities” in an effort to understand the ramifications of the president’s climate initiative. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz testified.
Conservative members were primarily concerned about the EPA’s pending carbon emissions rules, which were released days after the hearing, and their potential effects on the coal industry. They expressed concern that the carbon capture and storage (CSS) technologies necessary to reduce carbon emissions are not yet commercially viable and that the regulation would prevent the construction of new power plants. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), subcommittee chairman, remarked that power plants are already closing due to EPA regulations and expressed concern that combating climate change would cost too much and eliminate jobs.
McCarthy responded that CSS is, in fact, already available and that the EPA has no intention of preventing construction of new power plants. She noted that when the government required coal plants to install scrubbers that reduce acidic gas emissions, the coal industry was able to do so without detriment.
Committee members were also eager to ensure that the EPA does not overstep its legal boundaries; McCarthy confirmed that the new Climate Initiative allows the EPA to use only the authorities that have already been granted by Congress. She also vowed to work closely with other agencies such as the Department of Energy and the State Department.
Congress in brief
On August 19, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responded to a subpoena issued by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) to force the agency to relinquish the underlying data from two studies used to inform regulations under the Clean Air Act. One of them was a seminal study known as the Harvard Six-Cities Study, which followed a cohort of over 8,000 participants for 17 years to assess the effects of air pollution. In the late 1990s this study came under congressional scrutiny when it was used as the basis for strengthening air quality standards, and some members of Congress called for access to the underlying data. The battle over the study’s underlying data led to an independent assessment conducted by the Health Effects Institute and a change to OMB Circular A-110 governing federal grants to allow for access to certain research data that is used in federal regulations.
This latest debate over access to research data included a set of heated letters between the committee’s ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D- TX) and Chairman Smith. Although no details were provided about the type of documentation provided by the EPA to the committee, on September 3 Smith issued a letter in response stating that the agency had not provided any new data and hence stood in default of the subpoena. The new deadline for complying with the subpoena is now September 30.
On September 18, a House Science, Space and Technology Committee panel held a hearing on methamphetamine (meth) addiction. Witnesses included the head of a neuroimaging lab, an epidemiologist studying trends in substance abuse, and the director of an addiction research center. In connection with the hearing, Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) stated that the National Science Foundation “will play an integral role towards a more complete understanding of this problem. Hypothesis-based data-driven social science research can be used to understand the behavior science behind addiction.”
On September 18, the House passed the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013 (H.R. 761). The bill would authorize the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to enhance mineral exploration and streamline the process for receiving mining permits for rare-earth minerals and other minerals necessary for national defense, economic security, and to support the nation’s energy infrastructure.
Reports and publications
Congressional Research Service
Climate Change and Existing Law: A Survey of Legal Issues Past, Present, and Future
Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress
Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress
Is Biopower Carbon Neutral?
Earthquakes: Risk, Detection, Warning, and Research
Government Accountability Office